Remembering Our Heroes On D-Day

Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine, June, 2019.

 Remembering Our Nation’s Heroes on D-Day.

By Jim Ignasher

A PV-1 Ventura like the one flown by navy Lieutenant Jack Sullivan on D-Day.
U.S. Navy Photo

     On the morning of June 6, 1944, Navy Lieutenant Jack C. Sullivan, (25), of Dearborn, Michigan, sat at the controls of his twin-engine aircraft, (a PV-1 Ventura), warming the engines and awaiting orders for takeoff.   The Ventura carried a crew of six men and was usually tasked with attacking submarines, but on this particular morning Sullivan’s mission was to transport a civilian working on a secret project to a classified location. 

     Flying conditions were less than ideal, for a foggy mist covered the ground and overcast clouds hung low in the sky. Once aloft Sullivan would have to rely on his instruments for navigation, but there was no expectation of an enemy encounter.

     Clearance for takeoff came at 9:34 a.m., and once airborne the Ventura quickly rose and disappeared into the cloud cover.  What happened next was never officially determined, but four minutes later all aboard were dead.  

     History records that on the morning of June 6, 1944, (“D-Day”), the greatest military invasion of all time was taking place on the shores of Normandy, France, while the world held its collective breath to see who would prevail.  Therefore it’s understandable that news accounts relating to Lieutenant Sullivan’s aircraft were brief; eclipsed by other events overseas, for this incident didn’t occur on some faraway coast, but just off Jamestown, Rhode Island.

     This June marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion which was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s Third Reich, and ultimately brought World War II to a close.  The beach-landings were carried out by young men barely out of high school who grew up during the Great Depression and were used to doing without.  They knew how to improvise, adapt, and overcome, for they’d been members of 4-H Clubs, the Boy Scouts, and volunteer fire departments.  They attended church, and believed in God and country.  They were, as famous journalist and author Tom Brokaw dubbed them, “The Greatest Generation”.

      And while war was waged overseas, it was also fought on the home front.  In Rhode Island there were coastal artillery defenses, and military airfields from which pilots flew anti-submarine patrols.  Unfortunately many stories of the home front have faded virtually forgotten into history due to happenings in Europe and the Pacific.  The story of what happened to Lieutenant Sullivan’s airplane is but one of them.

     Sullivan’s aircraft left Quonset Point headed in a southeast direction where it passed over Narragansett Bay and Jamestown.  According to witnesses, there was a loud explosion overhead, followed by the plane coming out of the clouds and crashing into the water just off Jamestown’s eastern shore where it sank immediately.  The area where the crash occurred is known as “The Dumplings”, located south of the Newport Bridge in the bay’s east passage.

     Workers from the Wharton Shipyard immediately launched a boat to aid any survivors, but didn’t find any.  Two bodies were recovered on the surface, the rest were found by navy divers who reported that the aircraft lay in several large pieces on the floor of the bay. 

     Investigators ruled out sabotage, as well as any evidence of an explosion, but the exact cause of the accident couldn’t be determined.  The navy investigation report, (# 44-14865), reads in part: “The cause of the accident is undetermined as all personnel aboard were killed.  Eyewitness accounts and recovered wreckage disclosed no clues as to the cause of the accident.”

     There was some speculation that the aircraft may have experienced engine trouble, perhaps a backfire, and the pilot came down through the cloud ceiling to obtain visual bearings with the ground, and in doing so subsequently crashed. However this was only a theory.    

     Besides Lieutenant Sullivan, others aboard included:

     Aviation Machinist Mate First Class Thomas J. Kiernan, Jr., (22). 

     Photographers Mate Second Class Regis A. McKean, (23).

     Aviation Ordinance Mate Second Class Frank P. Van Oosten, (23).

     Aviation Machinist Mate Second Class Albert L. Kresie, Jr., (25).     

     Aviation Radioman Second Class Francis G. Hricko, (27).

     The civilian aboard was Dr. John Mc Morris, (44), of Los Angeles.  The details of his presence aboard have never been made public.  He was not a medical doctor, but a scientist who’d been a college professor and police consultant in the area of forensics.  He’s credited with inventing a method for lifting latent fingerprints from items and surfaces that otherwise would have been impossible using traditional methods.  His techniques are still used today. 

     As a point of fact, this was not the only military aviation accident to occur in Rhode Island on June 6, 1944.

     Also on that day a single-engine “Avenger” navy torpedo bomber was landing at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station when the left brakes failed causing the plane to “ground-loop” at high speed buckling the left wing and fuselage.  The aircraft would require a major overhaul, but the three man crew was not injured.    

U.S. Navy Wildcat Aircraft
U.S. Navy Photo

     Meanwhile, a single-engine “Wildcat” navy fighter on a ferry trip from Boston to Atlantic City developed engine trouble while passing over southern Rhode Island.  The aircraft was at 10,000 feet at the time, and when the engine suddenly quit, the pilot opted to stay with the plane rather than bail out as he didn’t want to risk injury to civilians on the ground.  This was a decision that could have cost him his life, but fortunately he was able to make an emergency landing in an open field in Hope Valley and lived to tell the tale. 

     In closing, here’s something for the reader to ponder.  World War II ended in 1945.  According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, American WWII veterans are passing away at the rate of 372 per day!  And of the16 million men and women who served in the armed forces during the war, an estimated half-million are still living.  Do the math.  And if you encounter a WWII veteran, be sure to shake their hand and say “thank you”, for you may never get another chance.  

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